Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Qualifier Preview: Mexico at Costa Rica

Post No. 2 looking ahead to key South Africa 2010 qualifying matches this weekend.

In this one, we focus on Mexico playing in Costa Rica, on the artificial turf of Estadio Saprissa in the capital of San Jose.

How this one turns out ... could change the face of qualifying in Concacaf.

Mexico is coming off a 2-1 comeback victory over the United States, its arch-rival. And Costa Rica was hammered, at Honduras, 4-0.

But those results may not mean much of anything here.

Global soccer analysts probably expect Mexico to get a point, and maybe three. Just off reputation and those recent matches.

But that overlooks two salient facts of the Concacaf world, both pertaining to the difficulty of winning on the road -- which seems as pronounced in this region as any in the world.

1. Costa Rica has won all three of its home qualifiers, including a 3-1 rout of the U.S. and a 2-0 romp past Honduras. Its home dominance seems reinforced by the intimidating dimensions of Saprissa, as well as its slick and quick artificial turf, a rare surface at the international level. Indeed, the Americans never seemed to get comfortable on it in their lopsided defeat.

2. Mexico has yet to earn a single point on the road, in three matches, losing heavily (2-0) to the U.S. and Honduras (3-1) ... and failing even to escape El Salvador with a point, in a 2-1 come-from-ahead defeat in San Salvador.

The Concacaf standings show how tight things are in this group, with four matches left for each of the teams in the Hexagonal. Even one point on the road is hugely important. Only four of the 18 matches played thus far have yielded even one point for the visitor -- U.S. 2-2 at El Salvador, Costa Rica 3-2 at Trinidad & Tobago, Trinidad & Tobago 2-2 at El Salvador and Honduras 1-1 at T&T.

Which brings us back to Mexico. Is El Tri really back, now that Sven-Goran Ericksson has been sent packing back to Sweden and Javier Aguirre has taken over as coach? Has the breakout of young forwards Giovani dos Passos and Carlos Vela heralded a new heyday of Mexican soccer?

Costa Rica should be an acid test. Not only do the Ticos have significant talent and massive self-belief, when playing at cramped Saprissa Stadium, they consider Mexico their arch-rival, and they will be playing to keep the lead in the group standings.

The Ticos are led by midfielder (and captain) Walter Centeno. Celso Borges, only 21, has been a relevation in midfield. And Alvaro Saborio, who plays with Bristol City, and Bryan Ruiz, are dangerous attackers. When they are feeling giddy, Costa Rica fans will confide that they consider themselves the Brazil of North America, entertaining as well as skilled.

Mexico looked improved in its victory over the United States on Aug. 12, but it wasn't exactly decisive. Mexico trailed 1-0 and didn't get the winning goal until the 82nd minute.

What is at stake in this one?

For Mexico, a chance to close up on the top three in the group, hoping to pass one of them between now and October and gaining one of the three automatic berths to South Africa. A point (or three) out of Costa Rica would put the Mexicans in good stead to move into the top three, especially with its next two matches at home (where Mexico almost never loses) and the qualifying finale at T&T, which will almost certainly be eliminated before the match kicks off.

A defeat, however, could reignite the sense of national panic that gripped the country only a few months ago, and perhaps leave El Tri vulnerable when Honduras visits Mexico City on Sept. 9.

For Costa Rica, staying atop the group is at stake. Losing (or even tying) at home could mean it doesn't finish in the top three -- and that is to be avoided at all costs.

Keep in mind that the fourth-place team in Concacaf (currently Mexico) still has a chance to get to South Africa, but it will have to survive a home-and-home playoff with South America's No. 5 team. And that will be no picnic, whether it's Uruguay, Ecuador or maybe even Argentina.

Not qualifying is not an option for either nation. Mexico is a World Cup regular, and Costa Rica is gunning for its third straight finals appearance.

So, which is it? Costa Rica on top? Mexico in trouble again? Or the Ticos suddenly struggling and Mexico rolling? We shall find out Saturday in San Jose.

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